It takes less than 11 hours to fly to Beijing direct from San Francisco, and with four movies and four meals I barely noticed the time go by. The purser woke us by announcing that we could see the Great Wall out both sides of the plane, and indeed, there it was, stretching in fits and starts across impossibly rugged mountain terrain washed in the golden light of a clear midday in Autumn.
It was evident from the plane that Beijing has changed in ten years. "A lot" is an understatement, I believe the population has doubled, and I'm sure the area has. New apartment and office buildings stand proudly organized in neat lines according to some or other planning offices vision. The ring roads define areas of the city in their concentric circles, and beyond it roads fling themselves out to the west and south. The road north stops at the mountains, the road east halts at the sea.
In the airport, I bought a SIM card for my phone just outside the passport check lines, called Teresa to let her know we'd landed 45 minutes early and lined up with all the other foreigners - hundreds of American tourists and businessmen, lots Korean and Japanese businessmen, and a few Indian businessmen. Ten years ago I was one of a dozen foreigners in this line. Today I'm just one in a sea of blonds. The inspector barely looked at me. I pressed the smiley-face button below his window to show how please I was was his service, choosing the highest satisfaction rank from the lineup of buttons: green smiley-face, green sort of smiley-face, red flat smile face, and red frown face.
Now... bags. Two huge duffels, one carrying motorcycle parts for Jim, another with my clothes and gear, and my carryon with my electronic equipment. I was afraid I'd be targeted by customs for a search, but my mere three bulging bags were ignored by agents eyeing arrivees wheeling six and seven bags out.
Teresa met me out front smiling widely, simultaneously talking to me in her midwestern accent and chatting in Mandarin to the crosswalk guard. She speaks something like seven languages, having lived and worked all over the world. She clutched an iced Frappichino from Starbucks in one hand and my wheeled duffel in the other. China might have changed, but Teresa hasn't. We picked up just where we left off ten years ago, as if it had only been a matter of weeks, though both our lives have changed drastically since then.
The driver loaded my bags in the back of the SUV and we rode the fifteen minutes to the shop where Jim Bryant is a partner. We spotted him inside the courtyard, fashionably resplendent in black leather jacket and chaps, black rimmed glasses and a red bandana. (See the photo album.)
The shop was crowded with bikes in various states of repair from rusty heaps of metal to carefully restored museum pieces. This one to a Hong Kong chef, that one to a Beijing executive. Jim's round-the-world bike with the bullet sidecar, and the one I'll be riding tomorrow.
Teresa and I left on her CJ, stopping to catch up for a short time at a European beirgarten near her house. Along one stretch of new homes and businesses she asked me, "Remember when we rode through the countryside ten years ago and there were those piles and piles of corn on the side of the road?" I nodded, remembering fondly that crisp autumn day much like today with clear air and country smells. "Well, that's this road right here, the one we're riding on now." A moment later she pointed to a golf course next to a river. "I left for four months earlier this year and came home to find they'd put that golf course over there."
I slept, and slept, and slept. This morning we're headed out in about an hour to ride north and will probably spend the night in or near Datong, then head west along the Yellow River toward Yinchuan over the next few days. Stay turned for photos and progress reports!
Here's the photo album.